The Christmas season is upon us, and this year – as usual – there are several new Christmas movies in the cinemas. One of them has a rather pretentious title: The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s the story of Charles Dickens and his most famous book, A Christmas Carol. The movie title might seem like a stretch, but there’s a reason behind it.
When Dickens published A Christmas Carol in December 1843, he never dreamed that his little morality tale would become one of the most treasured and iconic Christmas stories of all time.
But Dickens became so synonymous with Christmas that, as legend has it, on June 9, 1870 – the day he died at age 58 – a young girl in London was heard to exclaim, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
Over a hundred years later, in 1988, the London Sunday Telegraph called Dickens “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” The movie is based on a book – with the same title – written in 2008 by Les Standiford.
How did Dickens become so associated with the way we celebrate Christmas?
By the time he published Carol, Dickens was already firmly established as England’s favorite novelist. Ironically, he lived during a time of decline in the old observances of Christmas.
Today, it’s difficult to believe that in early-nineteenth century England the ancient traditions of Christmas were in peril. There were a number of contributing factors, including the Industrial Revolution, which had uprooted families from their ancestral villages. As the culture evolved, the old ways slowly withered.
In words that sound familiar today, an essay written in 1817 lamented the fading of the old Christmas customs in the “money-obsessed, utilitarian-minded world of the second and third decades of the 19th century.”
But as Queen Victoria took the throne in the 1830s, something of a Christmas revival began. Christmas carols, which had all but disappeared, began to be sung again. And the same year Dickens published Carol, the first Christmas card appeared on the scene. The time was right for a Christmas renaissance.
Dickens didn’t really set out to save Christmas. Earlier that year he’d been appalled at the findings of a government report on the conditions of child labor in England. That report, and a visit to an adult education institution for the working classes, put into Dickens’s mind the idea for a story “which should help to open the hearts of the prosperous and powerful towards the poor and powerless.”
In the process of writing this transformative tale, Dickens himself was “deeply affected” and had something of a spiritual experience. To a friend he wrote that, while writing Carol, he “wept, and laughed, and wept again,” and “walked about the black streets of London…many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.”
The cash-strapped Dickens took an enormous risk and decided to publish the book himself. He borrowed heavily to have the book lavishly leather-bound and illustrated by a top-tier artist. But the gamble paid off. The book was an instant success, selling out of its first printing before Christmas Eve. It has never been out of publication since, and has become as much part of the Anglo-American Christmas as holly, mistletoe, and Christmas trees.
Why has the story endured through the years? It’s partly because of its timeless theme of charity and kindness to others, especially the less fortunate.
That sentiment is summed up by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who says: “I have always thought of Christmas…as a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of…when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say God bless it.”
For the rest of his life, Dickens described this as the “Carol Philosophy.”
For Dickens, there was another essential message of the story: He believed that we should never lose touch with our childhood. What he wrote nearly two centuries ago strikes just the right chord for the season, and resonates now as ever: “…for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty founder was a child himself.”